March 20, 2013

Soderbergh's Side Effects Thrills

Movie Pick

Rooney Mara

SIDE EFFECTS (R) Plenty of Hollywood movies demand a suspension of disbelief for them to work as satisfying entertainment, particularly when it comes to thrillers that have some pretense of keeping it plausible. Focus too long on a plot contrivance or a major lapse in logic and the whole illusion can shrivel up faster than Shia LaBeouf's Broadway career. Realism and popcorn movies don't mix. It wasn't always that way, however. Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, it wasn't rare to see a director like Brian De Palma, Sydney Pollack or Alan J. Pakula skillfully mix outrageousness with realism and get away with it. The plots of their thrillers may have been far-fetched, but they were situated in a world that was still recognizable, featuring characters whose motives were clearly identifiable.

Director Steven Soderbergh is one of our most protean filmmakers, risk-taking and eager to test himself no matter what genre he's tackling. While his work is too varied to simply call him a genre director, he has devoted a significant amount of his career to dissecting and deconstructing genre cinema—The Limey, The Good German, Contagion, Haywire and a few others. His latest, the medical thriller Side Effects, is riveting from the get-go: a married woman, Emily (Rooney Mara), recently reunited with her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) after he spent four years in prison for insider trading, inexplicably rams her car into a concrete wall. She sees a psychiatrist, Dr. Banks (Jude Law), but her mental condition remains unstable even after she's prescribed several antidepressants. Still suicidal, Emily is given a new drug on the market, but it has one terrible side effect: sleepwalking. That leads to a shocking (yet inevitable) event that propels the plot into some wild narrative territory. The less said about that the better for your enjoyment.

The plot twists are ludicrous and increasingly pulpy, but they also feel spot on. Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z Burns infuse the implausibility with subtlety and an honest approach to the material. What we see on the screen is highly manipulated, but information isn't withheld at the expense of our trust. Soderbergh and Burns play fair. Side Effects also works because of its grounded performances, especially from Mara (who plays fragile, disturbed and fierce with plausible relish) and Law. This is supposedly Soderbergh's last theatrical movie before retirement. Let's hope he'll return after rejuvenating himself with painting or whatever it is he'll do for the next few years. It's a big loss for cinema and us.